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Life is long. YOu have plenty of time and chances to make mistakes, fix them, and get back on track.

Ask the Bitches: Is It Too Late to Get My Financial Shit Together?

Life is long. In theory, this means you have plenty of time and chances to fuck up, make mistakes, fix them, and get back on track.

And yet we’re surrounded by messages that instill the fear that if we don’t have our financial shit together by the age at which Warren Buffett was starting his prepubescent golf ball recovery empire, we’re doomed to a lifetime of grueling work and poverty.

In other words, if you don’t save $300,000 by the age of 30, you’re financially fucked for all eternity.

Many of the discouraging messages mean so, so well! Yet for the late bloomers, reading about thirty-year-old retirees and debt-free millennials can make it feel like they were late to the show and missed the main act.

And while I love savings and investment projections like this one for the purposes of setting goals… they can imbue the late bloomers among us with a sense of despair. For if you reach your thirties still knee-deep in debt and scrabbling at a meaningful career, it can seem like you’re already way too late. It can seem like it’ll take you forever to catch up. So why bother starting at all?

We got a question along these lines from an anonymous reader a little while back:

“Hi, Bitches. I’m so hooked on your material! Thank you so much for your dedication to financial literacy for us. My only issue is that I’m 26, so when I read through your material, I’m afraid I’ve made too many mistakes already or I’m too old to get on track to where you are. Any advice to us on the older side of this community?”

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, creampuff.

I, Piggy, Co-Bitch of Bitches Get Riches, was twenty-six when I started cracking down on my finances.

So in my book, you’re not late at all. You’re right on time.

The miseducation of a millennial finance guru

While I wouldn’t say I had terrible financial habits before the age of twenty-six, I kind of just let money… happen to me?

Like, I knew enough to pay off my credit cards and to buy into my company’s 401(k) plan. But that stuff was easy. I was lucky enough to have parents who helped me apply for my first credit card at age eighteen and a boss who basically bullied me into signing the 401(k) paperwork.

But other than that, I paid the minimum on my student loans, never asked for raises, and bought lunch out a lot. I was more wasteful than I care to admit and I didn’t know shit about investing or ROI. I certainly didn’t have an IRA at that time, and my savings (such as they were) were wasting away in a brick and mortar bank’s saving account. I shudder to think of how much I lost in depreciation expense alone.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think I was too scared of money to be proactive about it. My basic financial strategy was “Spend as little as possible and ignore the technical, adulty stuff” (with “technical, adulty stuff” defined as “anything to do with money more complicated than a checking account”).

As a result, I shared a house with six people, cooked meals at home a lot, and did a little freelance writing on top of the ole’ underpaid day job. But my very ignorance about the technical, adulty stuff was holding me back.

So twenty-six was the year I started learning about money.

That’s the year I increased my 401(k) contribution and allocated the funds to something other than Money Market. It was the year I started paying more than the minimum on my student loans, aggressively saving, and earning a shit-ton more money by asking for raises and pursuing side gigs like babysitting and freelance editing. That was the year my eyes were opened!

Welcome to the future

I’m now thirty-two. I’m completely debt-free except for my mortgage. And hey! I have a mortgage! I own a house!*

I’m making three times as much money as I made at twenty-six, I live more frugally than ever, I have multiple big fat retirement accounts and investment accounts, and in every way I have my financial shit together. I’m insured for $300,000. I own my car outright. My friends and internet strangers alike come to me for financial advice because they know I can turn $1 into $10 with the snap of my poorly manicured fingers.

In case that magical, six-year transition seems too much like the stuff of genies and devils at crossroads, let’s break down exactly how I got from there to here… and more importantly, how you can too.

Identify your goals

Money is a bullshit concept. It’s fancy pieces of paper that only have meaning because we’ve all collectively agreed to this game of make-believe called capitalism.

Collecting money the way some people collect Deadpool comic books or ceramic unicorns (lookin’ at you, Kitty) is an essentially pointless exercise.

But it all becomes much less absurd if you have an actual purpose for that money. Think of it like this: you’re not collecting green paper, you’re collecting freedom tickets.

A big goal for me at twenty-six was to own a home where I could garden to my heart’s content, store all my books, cook in a kitchen arranged to my personal specifications, and rigidly control the thermostat like the temperature despot I am. (If you’re cold in January the correct course of action is to PUT ON A SWEATAH, not to touch my damn thermostat, you watery-veined philistine.)

Suddenly my dollars became the individual building blocks of a down payment on a house. I had a goal in sight, and thus, a reason to save.

From there I could see a future where I eventually stopped working for The Man and pursued my passion projects instead. I saw time spent in national parks and nightlong jam sessions with friends and fancy cheeses. So many fancy cheeses.

I needed money to reach all these goals (especially my cheese-related goals). That gave my newfound financial discipline a purpose, and it gave me inspiration to get my financial shit together.

Connect the acquisition of cold, hard cash with where you see yourself in the future. Give yourself something to strive for, no matter when you start striving.

Face your debt

The albatross around most millennial college graduates’ necks is student loan debt, and I was no different. I dutifully paid the minimum every month and thought little of it. Technically, I rounded up to the nearest round number, which meant I was paying like $2.89 more than the minimum, so… great job, Past Me. That’ll show ’em!

But at that rate, it was going to take me ten years and a whole lot of accrued interest to get to the point where I was no longer paying for my past and could finally start saving for my future.

Because that’s truly what debt is: delaying your future.

I figured out that if I wanted to reach my goals (see above), I needed to eliminate that debt, first and foremost.

So that’s what I did.

Dear readers… it wasn’t as bad as I thought! Whereas before I timidly peaked at my debt balance from behind a veritable shield wall of fear, facing it head-on was empowering. Knowing the numbers, the timeline, allowed me to come up with a plan to pay it off.

I’d already been paying back my student loans for three and a half years by the time I got aggressive about them. Yet instead of lamenting lost time and progress, I made a plan based on where I was at twenty-six. No matter what your age, no matter how big your debt, realistically you are not too late to do the same.

Educate yourself

Having goals and facing your giant pile of financial shit is all well and good…

… but without the knowledge to strategically meet those goals, they will remain the stuff of daydreams.

Indulge me in some shameless self-promotion here, ducklings. For twenty-six is also the age at which I started aggressively educating myself on all things personal finance… through blogs just like this one.

I learned the tactics that worked for other people and crafted them to my own circumstances. I researched the possibilities and tossed out what wouldn’t work for me. I shared tricks and tactics with Kitty, set little goals and milestones, and tracked my progress against those who had come before me.

Most of the bloggers and authors I followed were way ahead of me. There was no way, for example, I’d be able to retire by age thirty given where I was at twenty-six. So I didn’t even try.

But neither did I throw my hands up and resign myself to worker drone hell till kingdom come. It wasn’t a matter of “catching up,” but of achieving my goals on my own, revised timeline.

Knowledge is power, as they say.

Don’t just take it from me

This post is wandering dangerously close to “it worked for me, so it has to work for you!!!1!!!” territory. Which I’ll admit is disingenuous, given the variety of life circumstances I know to affect our dear readers. The playing field is far from level, and whether it’s because of bad personal decisions or the shitty hand you were dealt through no fault of your own, many of you will likely scoff at my personal experience for what it is: the barely-late start of a pretty privileged person.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to look very far to find solid examples of successful late-bloomers who come from much more extreme situations than my own.

Take our boy Bill from Wealth Well Done, for example. He managed to achieve financial independence after going to prison. And as we’ve discussed before, the system is remarkably hard on ex-convicts. Yet he has more than caught up despite his late start after a major speedbump.

Then there’s our darling David and John of the Debt Free Guys, a couple who found themselves $51,000 in credit card debt. In their own words, “We were the gay cliché of living fabulous but being fabulously broke.” Not only are they now out of debt, but they are living fabulously within their means and teaching others to do the same.

Erica of The Lady in the Black was not only a divorced single mom when she started writing her story—she was also jobless, savings-less, homeless, and plan-less. Her relentless optimism and humor-filled parenting style might make her my favorite late-blooming money writer of all time.

All of these people started getting their financial shit together after twenty-six. And if you’re looking for words of wisdom or even just a “sing it, sister” every now and then from fellow late bloomers, I suggest you hang on their every word.

In other words…

It’s not too late for you. And there is no shame in being a late bloomer. It is neither a hopeless nor a helpless position in which to be.

As for advice, here are some of our other resources to help you catch up:

You are definitely not too late. As far as this Bitch is concerned, you’re right on time. Welcome to the sisterhood.

*Technically the bank owns most of the house. So far I own the bathroom and two closets. But I’m on track to own the kitchen by next year!

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26 thoughts to “Ask the Bitches: Is It Too Late to Get My Financial Shit Together?”

  1. As they say, the best time to have started saving for retirement was 10 years ago.

    The second-best time is….right now.

    Good luck, young Skywalker. I believe the Force will be as strong with you as it was with Piggy.

  2. At 40, I’m just now getting serious about retirement. Thanks to a chronically ill (multiple conditions), inclined-toward-spending husband (he tried to reform, but his severe ADD meant he never really got out of living in the moment) and his $26,000 of dental work, along with some home repairs/upgrades… Well, I just didn’t put the emphasis I should’ve on my own retirement.

    I didn’t max out my Roth for many years, even once I could afford to. And I’ll pay for that, but I also know that I can still (probably) retire at some point if I get serious about it now. I still have 25-30 years of compound interest to take advantage of. So I’m throwing as much as I can into my new SEP-IRA (no 401(k) with my job) and making sure I max out my Roth. And that’ll just have to be good enough.

    Point being, if 40 (probably) isn’t too old, then at 26, she’s coming along just fine!

  3. Is 26 above the median age of readers on this blog? Fuck. Guess I should have known when you spent 1500 words on washing dishes

    Oh well, love you anyways!

      1. I am cracking up here, seriously. Surely, I’m not the only 40-ish reader of BGR, right? I wish I knew what these “kids” know at 26! Being a borderline Gen Xer, I did have the benefit of less student loan debt than a lot of millennials, but trust me from an “old” person: 26 is so.freaking.young! Compound interest still has plenty of time to work its magic. Fret not!

        1. Believe it or not, while our readers run the gamut from high schoolers to Baby Boomers, most of our readers are under 26! I agree it seems so young, but I definitely sympathize with the 26-year-old’s feeling of starting too late. 😉

        2. Late 30s here! Personal finance nerd and I started popping over to BGR after The Billfold shut down. I like reading sites that skew a bit younger because I think it is helpful to have a commentariot who has lived it and can offer encouragement that certain strategies really work! I starting buckling down for retirement at around age 27 and I’m currently sitting pretty at 37. Traditional retirement is more than covered and early retirement may be in my future if life goes the right way. Dear 26 year olds – you’ve got plenty of time!!!

  4. It’s never too late, right?
    Me at 26: had just gotten my first full-time job instead of working up to three part time jobs at a time, no access to a 401k, hadn’t opened an IRA, did have a few thousand in a soon to be rolled over pension account from job I’d been laid off from and was saving for a down payment helped by cheap rent deal and being a 1 car household of 2.
    Me just months before my 40th: Feel like I’m on track to retire at 65 like you’re supposed and actively saving for big home reno project that could be 25-75k, frustrated by work (do I have to keep doing this for another 20+ years?), reading about home renovations and click link to FIRE blog, do some math and realize that I could retire by 47! Do more math and start shoveling money into investments, cancel big reno project (do I really need more space for stuff?) and feel more in control of my money and my future than ever.

    I think it’s normal to always feel like we’ve missed the boat because someone is always ahead but that’s just the first step in evaluating where we are and making a plan. I could have never predicted at 26 where my life is at 40 and who know where I’ll really be in 10-20 years. But I’m pretty sure I won’t be putting in 40 hours/week in an office working wondering how/if I should use my PTO and I know I might not have been able to retire at 30 (there was no way that was ever going to happen!) but I’m on a path to be light years ahead of where I thought I’d be in my early 40s

  5. Thank you for including us in this fabulous article!

    It’s never too late to make the right decision for a better future. I am so thankful that we did this when we did, in our mid-30s, but we know others who are in their 40s, 50s and even 60s who are getting their $hit together and starting the fabulous life. Especially if we plan on living into our 100s then we have a ton of time in front of us.

    Little steps today yield big results tomorrow.

    1. But of course! We love you guys. :* And you’re so right: while this reader was worried about starting at twenty-six, their situation is adorably mild compared to people who don’t get their act together until much later.

  6. Just tossing in another “here’s where I was at 26” story. 26 was the year I lost my first big-boy job, due to the housing debacle. I still had ~$12,000 in student loans. I was 80% underwater on my mortgage. I had to move 1,100 miles away from my house to go back into my childhood bedroom to afford my monthly mortgage payments on a house I couldn’t afford to live in. I had a few thousand bucks saved, but was perilously close to losing those dollars toying around with penny stocks. Holy heck, I had a net worth of NEGATIVE $150,000.
    But those years of living lean led me to be quite comfortable saving a significant portion of my next “real job” paycheck. My next job had me making $40k/yr, and I knew I had lived on ~$19k the prior two years, so I saved up a dedicated emergency fund for the first time. I (foolishly) bought precious metals. I opened a Roth IRA. Then, after I landed a new job with access to a 457 plan, I started small but kept “saving until it hurt” then pushed myself to side-hustle for extra money to make the hurt go away. After a couple years of contributing to the 457, I got to the point where I could max it out ($18,000 at that time) along with my Traditional IRA. I have to give a lot of thanks to the markets of the past 10 years, but they wouldn’t have been any help to me if I hadn’t started saving little bits here and there and invested in my future. It’s so cliche, but every dollar adds up, and now my net worth is up $400k from that point 10 years ago. It doesn’t even seem real.

  7. Working on my cheese goals!

    If it makes any twenty six year olds feel better, I was thirty years old before I started doing a single good thing with money, and that first good thing was listening to goddamn Dave Ramsey. Even dumbasses like me can turn it around, if a bit later than I should have.

    Like you said, this isn’t to say anyone can do what I did. But it’s never too late to try, either.

  8. I didn’t get a proper job until I was 31, it pays almost exactly the national average for the UK. I was on benefits up until then and at home raising my daughter. She was eight when I went to work. Since then from being careful with money (I was used to living on not-a-lot), and using the best savings options I could find I’ve managed to be in a good place. I eventually bought my house, paid off half the mortgage in six years, got my degree, a pension, a decent emergency fund and a (very) small investment account.
    I’m aware that I’ve had lots of privilege, I’m white, with a good education, got my degree when they were affordable and bought my house from my Mum at just under market price. I’ve also got problems in the shape of anxiety and depression and being female in the job market!
    Everyone has a different set of plusses and minuses to deal with and though it’s not a case of “if I can anyone can” please know that 26 is actually pretty early to start and won’t be the reason you can’t do it!
    Tx

  9. I didn’t have a job that offered a 401(k) until I was 30 due to freelance / gigging / contract jobs, & just crappy companies. Also, recession. 20 years later, I’ve managed to save as much as I can, but I’ll never retire “early,” I’ll just be lucky if I can retire. Oh you kids these days!

  10. I love this! I felt the exact same way when I first started learning about PF and actively trying to save more money. I kept hearing “start early” and I kept seeing all of those charts and graphs showing how much easier it was the earlier you start. Here I was, in my early thirties and even though it didn’t stop me from heading in this direction, it didn’t quite spur me on either.

    But you’re totally right. No matter when you start, but changes and improvements can happen pretty quickly!

  11. I just wanted to say THANK YOU for this post (even though the ’26’ did cause a minor panic moment). I’m about to hit 39 (my birthday is a few days), and I am a survivor of violence. My last relationship was full of over-the-top financial violence (in addition to all of the other violence we learn about), and I was left with nothing (no job, no car, no home, no bank accounts, no credit, no retirement funds, NOTHING – except for $100k in student loan debt), so I’m rebuilding from that. Oh, and I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer on top of everything else. Because, of course.

    All of the information I see now has had me nearly paralyzed with concern about retirement, but I’ve recently been taking baby steps (THANK YOU, YNAB!) to get myself back on a track to financial health. I’d actually *love* to speak to a financial advisor about some plans, but affording one? In my situation? Pardon me – I need to grab my inhaler from laughing too hard.

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